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Hugh Nibley Will Never Happen Again

During my time as an undergraduate at BYU I noticed there were certain Latter-day Saint scholars that were looked up and aspired to by different groups. These were the days of Rough Stone Rolling when the “New Mormon History” seemed ascendent after a false labor with Leonard Arrington. Various Bushman acolytes aspired to follow in his footsteps and entered training in history, religious studies, or adjacent fields so that they could bring their formal training to Latter-day Saint related fields and become the kind of authority in Latter-day Saint issues that transcended the academy and had a direct bearing on the Church zeitgeist, much as Bushman did. 

Similarly, I had the sense that peak Nibley-ism had crested about a decade or so before my undergraduate years, with his acolytes similarly entering ancient languages and history to become the next Hugh Nibley, and while I’m not involved in the humanities I suspect that Eugene England had a similar effect in some circles, with people wanting to write the next landmark essay that was circled around Latter-day Saint intelligentsia. (As a social scientist we don’t really have an equivalent. Valerie Hudson probably comes closest, although there is the fun fact that one of the early Presidents of the American Sociological Association was a grandson of Brigham Young). 

Enough time has passed to see the results of such aspirations. Some have found very rewarding careers, but that original aspiration was and will probably continue to remain unfulfilled. There will never be another Hugh Nibley, Richard Bushman, or Eugene England for two reasons:

First, specialization. Hugh Nibley especially lived in the time of the generic scholar, when the human knowledge base was still small enough that an intelligent person with a lot of time could reasonably claim to be somewhat proficient in large swaths of human knowledge, and could therefore draw very high-level conclusions about society, god, and just about everything. While people now jeer at Hugh Nibley for drawing very overarching conclusions involving multiple disciplines, this was the norm in the environment that formed him. When the Joseph Smith papyri were found, Hugh Nibley underwent intensive Egyptological training in addition to his Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Shakespeare, and whatever else he was into. Now we have students who enter graduate schools just for Egyptology, Coptic, or Christian Theology. I doubt that James Faulconer knows as much about the particulars of early Christian theology as Robert Boylan, nor that Richard Bushman knows as much about Latter-day Saint history as Ardis Parshall. That’s not to demean Faulconer or Bushman but to credit Boylan and Parshall. Whatever subject you consider, no matter how narrow, there is a good chance somebody out there has spent a significant portion of their lives learning everything there is to know about that subject, which in the Internet age is quite a lot. There is simply no way that a renaissance man or woman can keep up abreast with enough fields to be able to speak with some kind of authoritative uber-scholar voice that we had in the past. 

Second, attention fragmentation: pre-Internet, the “marketplace of ideas” was controlled by a few publishing houses and journalistic outlets that acted as gatekeepers for new information. To be a well-read person you read the material that was glacially published by these outlets, because that is all there was. Consequently, those who passed by the gatekeepers were the natural intellectual high priests. Now there are many intellectual high priests. I’m not going to get into whether those “canonized” texts, whether in international relations, short fiction, or Latter-day Saint history, in fact merit their status, but I suspect that if there was a blind taste test canonized texts wouldn’t amount to much compared to what is being produced today. Similarly, with mainstream media entertainment collective attention was directed via a few gatekeepers with access to the means of production and dissemination of audiovisual content, whether via television or studio movies. With the advent of cheap film production technology, podcasts, and Youtube that power has been fractured. The Latter-day Saint intellectual landscape has been similarly fractured, with dozens of voices, and people can pick and choose which to stock their shelves with depending on their tastes. 

This may sound like I’m complaining and pining for a golden age. I’m not. I like specialization, it allows for accelerated progress when our particle physicists can focus on particle physics and don’t have to also spend time trying to read Newton in the original Latin. I know this makes me a rube, especially in some humanities circles, but I am sympathetic to the left-wing critique that the idea of a literary canon was often to privilege certain voices more than to reveal some deep insight about man, the nature, or cosmos that I couldn’t get just as (and usually more) easily elsewhere. 

Which brings me to point two; for the most part I like fractured attention. In my experience the people complaining that we’re not on the same page are pining for the day when they or people who thought like them got to choose what was on that one page. We now have rich, variegated intellectual traditions, and this allows for more of a free market of ideas than existed before whether you’re into Adam Miller, Interpreter, AML, or 19th century feminist Mormon poetry from Southern Utah. There is no one podium that has prominence (I suspect one of the reasons people are preoccupied with lobbying the brethren about General Conference topics is that there are so few other podiums nowadays that command more than a fraction of people’s passing attention). 

The turn towards multiple podiums not constrained by gatekeepers creates a much richer, varied landscape; there will never be a single Hugh Nibley-esque figure, there will be dozens, and this is a good thing.


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